Like fine wine, Joe Mantegna just keeps getting better with age. With decades of acting experience under his belt and a ton of heart, he’s conquered the worlds of theater, film and television. But in 2020, when his much-loved CBS show Criminal Minds ended its run after 15 seasons, the last thing Joe expected was for Paramount+ to pick it up. The new series, Criminal Minds: Evolution, reunited most of the cast and was so well received that a second season is scheduled to bow in December. “It was like jumping on a different bike,” Joe told Closer during the Television Critics Association Press Tour. “You know, like a shiny, new, bigger, more exciting kind of a bike. It’s like jumping from a regular bike onto an electric bike!”

So, you didn’t expect ‘Criminal Minds’ to come back?

“I didn’t, but I’m thrilled. When the CBS show ended, we figured OK, we did 15 years. I think there were some hints when we ended that maybe there would be a chance [to return] down the line, especially the way things are now with reboots, but we weren’t expecting it.”

As federal agents who profile violent criminals, the show has never shied away from graphic content. Have you ever worried it would turn some viewers off?

“No. I’ve always been a defender of the fact that our show gave a realistic aspect to what these real men and women at the FBI do. It doesn’t disturb me at all. When they say, ‘Cut,’ that person lying there with the ax in his head pops up and goes over to craft services and gets a sandwich. But we try to show it like it is. I think that’s important.”

What set you on the path to become an actor when you were growing up?

“I auditioned for West Side Story in high school on a dare. I didn’t get cast, but the experience just blew me away. I thought, ‘I want that experience of getting up on a stage and singing a song and having people clap for me.’ That’s what set me on that path. That was 60 years ago and I have never looked back.”

Fans who know you from ‘Criminal Minds’ or some of your dramatic film roles might be surprised to hear that you started off in musical theater.

“In 1969, I tried out for the play Hair and got cast. I thought I was going to be a musical theater actor. I did Godspell next — both were long runs. But then my career took another turn, which is fine. You play the cards that you’re dealt.”

Joe Mantegna Criminal Minds

Your Tony-winning role in ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ turned you toward drama.

“That really catapulted my career from one level to another. I went from just being a struggling actor to winning the Tony Award.”

What do you remember most fondly from that time of your life?

“When we did the national tour of the show, I got to work with Peter Falk. We toured together for six months in Boston, LA, Chicago, San Francisco, and we became the dearest of friends. We were close right up until he passed away. I was the only person his wife would let see him during those last few days. He could hardly speak, but I could make him smile and so it was great.”

That’s so nice. Do you ever miss singing?

“Not so much. I was in a rock ’n’ roll band in the 1960s. I knew we weren’t going to really hit it big, but we were a working band. I probably made more money in the band for the first few years than I did as an actor. I enjoyed it, and I became friends with some wonderful singers. Tony Bennett became one of my dearest friends. Michael Bolton, Steve Tyrell and Steve Lawrence all became good friends. Johnny Mathis is a dear friend. I cast him in an episode of Criminal Minds where he plays my best man at a wedding.”

How did your family react to your desire to become a performer?

“They were supportive and not discouraging. My mother lived to be 101 years old, but I don’t even think she really understood what I did for a living. My brother told the story of how when I got the show Criminal Minds, she called him and said she was worried about me. My brother said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘He’s only working an hour a week!’ She had no concept of the work.”

Do you think you inherited your drive to succeed from your family?

“Maybe. Not a lot was handed to me in my life. My father was pretty much disabled. My mother wrapped packages for Sears Roebuck, so we never owned anything outside of the car we drove. I think my drive comes from that. I couldn’t take anything for granted. I always knew that in order to get by you had to work for it.”

What have been some of your other favorite roles?

“I loved playing Dean Martin in The Rat Pack. I never met him, but I got to be very close to his daughter Deana during the making of that film. When I got nominated for an Emmy and Golden Globe, she was the first person to call me up and congratulate me. We’re still very close.”

One of your daughters is an actress.

“She pursues it, but she’s got other interests, too. She’s also interested in real estate. She’s like the son I never had because with her house, if something goes wrong with it, she goes onto YouTube and figures out how to fix it herself.”

I know autism is an important topic for you because your oldest daughter is autistic. How is she doing?

“She’s wonderful. She’s pursuing her art. She almost has a savant ability reminiscent of Renoir or Gauguin in the look and colors. It’s quite incredible. She’s 36 years old but a child at heart.”

You’ve been married over 50 years. What’s your secret?

“The way I like to put it is that marriage is like being on a roller coaster. It’s fun, but then these scary turns happen. The trick is, at least for me, is that we hung on during those scary turns. Then things smoothed out again. For us, the ride keeps getting better and better.”